Enchanting Eichlers

Here's a comparison you don’t see every day: Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Eichler. After all, one was a nation’s founder and self-taught architect who embraced neoclassical design, while the other was a tract home developer who turned post-and-beam residential construction into a classic style. But the two have more in common than you’d think, says Bill Hansell, a Bay Area architect who was educated at the Jefferson-designed University of Virginia and has renovated five Eichler homes in Marin County, including his own.

"Jefferson had both a practical approach and an interest in the idea that design be simultaneously rooted in use and contemporary meaning," says Hansell. "Similarly, Eichler and his architects sought to be practical — they were building low-cost houses meant for everyday people — but also reflective of contemporary society and, specifically, California living." And while Jefferson had his own architectural playground of sorts in and around Charlottesville, Va., Eichler had the San Francisco Bay Area.

Today, Marin County boasts the largest concentration of Eichler homes in all of California — but Eichler's path to Marin was not a direct one. In his early 40s, just as a full-time stint working as chief financial officer in his wife’s family’s butter-and-egg business was winding down, Eichler abruptly moved his family of four from their small home in San Mateo to an even smaller rental in neighboring Hillsborough. A mix of aesthetic enchantment and a love of the new seems to have drawn Eichler to the house, which had been designed in the modernist style by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright. It both captured Eichler's imagination and foretold his future.

The family's short stay in the rental drew to a close in 1945 — the same year Eichler began a second career as a developer, at first building and selling unremarkable tract homes in Sunnyvale. By 1949, Eichler had recruited Frank Lloyd Wright disciple Robert Anshen as an architect, and through their collaboration, the first true "Eichlers" — priced just below $10,000 — came into being.

"A lot of people have asked — and I’ve even asked myself — where did this come from?" says Joseph Eichler's son Ned, a Tiburon resident who worked for the Eichler Homes company in a number of different roles over the years, ultimately overseeing sales. "There had been no obvious evidence in his life of this interest in modern architecture, except that he kind of liked everything that was new — the latest electric razor, the latest car." Ned Eichler notes that even his father didn’t initially make the connection between his success in the real estate business and his affinity for forward thinking design. Joseph Eichler's working relationship with Robert Anshen, however, did offer a clue. The young architect had been working on a home for the Eichler family in the years leading up to their professional collaboration, and it was Anshen's uncharitable appraisal of Eichler's first Sunnyvale tract — his exact words, says Ned, were "Joe, how can a man of your taste build such crap?" — that finally set Eichler in the direction of his true calling.


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